Falling in love… too literally

By Christian Nielsen

‘Spurned skydiver murders love rival in '. Big news in a little country, and a just waiting to be made.

Monday 15 November 2010

However, in the same place that gave us La Vie Sexuelles des Belges and SM-Rechter, you might be excused for thinking that this in the skies is a run-of-the-mill story.

Love triangles conjure up visions of film noire – attractive bourgeois characters living out their dark sexual fantasies. Clandestine meetings, dangerous liaisons and, of course, plenty of . But the Belgians have gone and crushed this fantasy by making it all too real and played out by rather homely folk.

At the centre of the story is Els Clottemans, a 26-year-old primary school teacher. Anywhere else, this unremarkable women wouldn't warrant much attention, certainly not that of a screenwriter or director, but in Belgium her story is likely hot property now. The reason? She killed for love and she did it movie-style by cutting the parachute cords of her love rival.

Last month, a court in the old Flemish town of Tongeren took just three weeks to convict her of the murder, back in November 2006, of Els Van Doren. The jury sentenced Clottemans to 30 years. But there was nothing clear cut (sorry) about this short trial. There is also a legal storm around the case. Clottemans repeatedly denies cutting the cords. She was convicted despite no physical evidence linking her to the murder, say reports. She was found guilty because she alone had motive – she was the only one who could have done it, one of the lawyers is reported to have said.

The three protagonists in this unusual story – Clottemans, Van Doren and their lover Marcel Somers – were members of the same parachute club. Van Doren was having an extra-marital relationship with Somers who was seeing Clottemans on the side. The prosecution claimed Clottemans wanted to remove her rival from the picture. Police ruled out, quite summarily according to critics of the investigation, both Somers and Van Doren's husband as suspects.

Among the evidence which proved enough to convict Clottemans was video footage of the actual freefall caught on the victim's head camera. Graphic, movie-making stuff which no doubt left an impression on the court. A parachute expert also gave testimony. He said Van Doren's main chute failed to open and the reserve, though in tact, got tangled in her strapping. She was unable to free it in time.

The case of the spurned skydiver turned murderer in Belgium could make not one but potentially three great films: a psychological thriller where plain Jane kills out of deranged passion; a legal drama with an undercurrent of police cover-up or incompetence; and a skydiving action thriller (complete with the final thud). Perhaps the last scenario would be better for Hollywood than Belgium, if past pedigree is anything to go on.   

Film beige

In this writer's humble opinion, Belgium doesn't do glamorous sex-plots in film; it's more comfortable with what can only be called film beige a la Belge. Take exhibit 1, the eccentric 1994 film La Vie Sexuelles des Belges (The Sex Life of the Belgians), a semi-autobiography of Flemish writer/anarchist Jan Bucquoy. He writes, directs and narrates this funny story of sexual cadence, from his own conception (flash-back to drunk parents'quickie) to his first orgasm (beach-side hand-job by friend Eddy), his experiments with the Kama Sutra, his short married life, and from his brief career writing pornography to his flowering as a man and cineaste.

Exhibit 2 comes from director Erik Lamens whose film SM-Rechter (S&M Judge, 2009) is a grim but touching true-life account of a loving couple whose habit of filming their full-on S&M activities lands them in trouble. You see, the man is a judge and his private life becomes a public concern when a small-time criminal connects him with a seedy S&M club that he and his wife had been to. The couple endure an investigation, trial and shame but they stick it out. The real-life judge welcomed the film because it told their side of the story.

And with various sex scandals, sometimes involving children and, more recently, high-ranking clergy you'd be forgiven for getting the ‘wrong' impression of this little nation tucked between , Holland and Germany. But what's the right impression, then?

That would depend on your views of sex and understanding of the Belgian psyche. This is a country that walks a delicate line between public scrutiny – a notoriously liberal press – and private discretion. It's a region with a history of passive resistance to any and every overlord who would lay claim to it – French, Spanish, Dutch, Germans, Austrians and even Romans. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Belgians have also become famously good at compromising – called compromis à la Belge – which helps this small country navigate its way in the European Union of 27 member states and between rival language groups and territories.

Like no other people, Belgians (whether French, Dutch or German-speaking) respect individualism, cherish family and fiercely cling to their freedom of expression. Sure, it can manifest in some pretty odd, even unpleasant ways, but that should come as no surprise. Belgium is a product of its upbringing. It's a bit temperamental but what adolescent isn't? (Belgium was only created in 1831.)

So whether you're seeing Belgium through its quirky films or through real-life events, you'll be left with one redoubt: film beige never goes out of style.

Published here with the author's permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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